Written by Pierce Lydon • March 30, 2023
Earth Day is April 22 each year. It’s a day to promote the environmental movement, a movement that focuses on increasing climate literacy and decreasing harmful, unsustainable behaviors to protect the world’s plants and animals. Earth Day is also a major day for advocates and advocate groups who support environmental policy change to further their messages.
But where did Earth Day come from? And why is it important?
The first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970, which is seen as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The first Earth Day was celebrated in the United States, however Earth Day is now an annual event that engages more than 190 countries and up to one billion people.
Earth Day was born from reactions to the explicit negative impacts of industrialization, especially the debilitating air pollution. During the industrial time period, productivity and economic progression were seen as the most important aspects of society - leaving nature’s health (not to mention humans’ health!) as a last priority.
Industrialization's role in damaging the earth was called out in Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which came out in 1962. This book raised awareness that the choices that companies were making had an impact on living things. This was one of the first mainstream pieces of literature that connected pollution to poor public health outcomes. The public’s reaction to this book was extensive, with many people starting to talk about the environment for the first time.
Fast forward to 1970, and the first Earth Day was planned after a major oil spill off the coast of California. The goal of this day was to put environmental consciousness at the top of everyone’s mind through highlighting current environmental concerns. A Wisconsin senator named Gaylord Nelson began to bring together his colleagues and staff around his concern about the environment. Senator Nelson wanted to harness the advocacy efforts of college students in his mission to promote environmental consciousness - the date of April 22 was actually chosen based on the typical college calendar, as it fell between spring break and finals periods.
April 22, 1970 saw millions of Americans take the street to promote Earth Day. Not only did college students get involved, but also the groups who had previously been advocating in their own ways against oil spills, factory pollution, sewage dumps, and pesticides. This event would soon grow to become one of the largest social movements in history.
Twenty years after the first Earth Day, the event went global. 1990 saw the first global Earth Day, mobilizing 200 million people across 141 countries. This movement gave momentum to actions taken by the United Nations, who began to focus on recycling efforts. It also showed world leaders that the general public no longer wanted to participate in heavy industrialization efforts that were harmful to the environment.
Today, climate change and environmental concerns are center stage in global discourse. Many young people feel an overwhelming sense of doom when they consider their future - a future that may see fewer species of animals because of the conscious decisions made by companies and world leaders. This motivates them to protest and advocate in many powerful, emotionally moving ways that in turn inspires older generations to make changes in their lives.
Earth Day now has massive social media activity, and has expanded past the original audience of college students to include people of all ages. Over one billion people participate in Earth Day activities on April 22 each year, each one advocating for better choices from the individual level to the national level. It maintains its focus on grassroots events, with millions of events happening across the world.
In 1970, as a result of the inaugural Earth Day, the United States Environmental Protection Agency was created, which led to the passage of the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. A few years later, the country also saw the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act - all of which have impacts an uncountable number of human lives, as well as the lives of animals and plants.
It’s difficult to describe how important Earth Day and the larger environment movement have been in the world’s overall health - animal, plant, and human alike. As a rallying point for many people, it’s a reminder that we cannot sleep on advocating for the environment. It’s a day to celebrate the progress already made on combating climate change, and a day to reflect on what still needs to happen to ensure that the world’s environment stays healthy.
As it goes with the environment, we’ll only be able to see the effects of our advocacy centuries from now. However, each person has a role to play, and every individual can make a difference, whether that’s picking green options for your office or switching to an electric vehicle.